Exceeding expectations

TUPELO – Chancellor Robert Khayat says the advances the University of Mississippi has made during his tenure have been largely due to teams of students, staff, faculty and alumni whose aims were “to exceed expectations.”

Khayat, who will retire June 30 after 14 years as chancellor, was in Tupelo on Tuesday to meet with the Daily Journal editorial board and to speak to alumni and friends as part of the Ole Miss Luncheon Series.

In his meeting at the Daily Journal, he was asked to identify the most rewarding moments – the Phi Beta Kappa chapter and the Presidential Debate; the toughest challenge – the Confederate flag debate; and the biggest disappointment – an inability to get the kind of public funding for higher education that he wanted.

“For substance and long-term value, I would say being recognized by the leading academic honorary society was for me that most gratifying achievement,” he said.

As for public funding, he suggested Mississippi should make the same financial commitment to higher education as states like Georgia, which instituted a lottery and directed the revenue to universities.

“Higher education at the university level is a wonderful investment of resources,” he said. “We have all kinds of data that a high-quality system of universities changes the quality of life in a state.”

Image and reality together
After spending his first half-year on the job “doing a lot of listening,” Khayat’s administration began setting goals. The first was the most far-reaching: “Enhance the visibility, perception and reputation of the University of Mississippi to the state, nation and world.”

That overriding goal started with a hotly contested decision to distance the university from the Confederate flag – to many a beloved symbol of Southern tradition, but to others a emblem of racism.

“That was a tough thing to deal with,” he said. “We were getting as much mail from Montana … Oklahoma … South Carolina as we were from Mississippi.” With strong initial support from faculty, the measure eventually won support from most Ole Miss constituencies, Khayat said.

United behind Khayat’s vision to make Ole Miss “one of America’s Great Public Universities,” Ole Miss staff, students and supporters answered calls as varied as landscape and building improvement, salary upgrades and qualifying for a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s most prestigious academic honorary society.

University friends answered the call with donations, more than quadrupling its endowment.

“The love and affection Ole Miss people have for the university is phenomenal. If you offer a rational plan, people will invest in it,” Khayat said.

Presidential debate
When Khayat and his colleagues decided to pursue the presidential debate that brought Barack Obama, John McCain and worldwide attention to campus in September, one goal was “to provide our students with this incredible experience.” The other went back to image enhancement.

“For the university, my whole point was that we could move the baseline from 1962 to 2008,” Khayat said. “We are different … and not just Ole Miss, but Mississippi.”

The debate was a showcase for change that brought 3,200 journalists from across the globe and netted some 14,000 mostly positive mentions. One was from CBS chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer, who will keynote Commencement ceremonies on May 9.

Two days after the debate, Schieffer told his “Face the Nation” audience, “We still have a long way to go in this country to ensure that every American is treated fairly, but as I walked across the Ole Miss campus Friday, it helped me understand that in less than my lifetime, we have also come a very long way.

“It was a fine debate but it was so much more,” he said. “It was a significant moment in American history.”

The hard work of racial justice and cultural change had been ongoing for years before the debate. Khayat’s tenure has seen the advent of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation and a 40th-anniversary celebration of the university’s desegregation, among other such works.

On the field
Khayat noted that while university presidents everywhere struggle to keep athletics in balance with other priorities, success on the field or court also makes life sweeter in a college community.

“Oxford is a little bitty town,” he said. “If we win in football on Saturday, church attendance is up on Sunday, and retail sales go up for the whole next week.”

Ole Miss finished the 2008 football season with a Rebel-rousing with a six-game winning streak, including a convincing win over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl.

One fan told Khayat after the bowl victory in Dallas, “That Phi Baiter Kapper’ is all right, but it can’t touch winning this.”

The next leader
Institutions of Higher Learning trustees directing the search for Khayat’s successor have sought his input. When he was named chancellor, his status as a lawyer, an Ole Miss alumnus and a former college and professional athlete was viewed skeptically by some academicians early in his tenure. His legal and alumni connections, however, opened political and financial opportunities for the university, and his history as an Ole Miss loyalist provided the credibility to make hard decisions.

“Being an Ole Miss person in 1995 made a difference,” he said.

His successor, Khayat said, might best be a leader who is also a frequently published scholar or researcher.

“Now,” he said, “we need somebody who’s not like me.”

Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.

Khayat on other matters
TUPELO – University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat mused on a host of subjects Tuesday when he talked with the Daily Journal editorial board and later at the Ole Miss Luncheon Series at the BancorpSouth Conference Center.

– Campus alcohol abuse: “There are some things you have to accept, and one of those is that people are going to drink. We can try to get them to drink responsibility.”

– Racial reconciliation: “What we did in the past was not right, but that was the past; this is the present. We’re going to treat everybody with respect and opportunity.”

– President Barack Obama: “I was very impressed with his personal warmth. Obama has made some of the mistakes that some leaders make of trying to accomplish too many things at once.”

– Athletics: “One of our 21 strategies was having a competitive, integrity-based athletic program. We’ve been doing it now for a good number of years – playing absolutely by the rules. What’s fun for people are the socialization and the vicarious athletic participation.”

– Academic excellence: “I’m not saying this to denigrate the University of Tennessee, but in Memphis there is a sign that says, The University of Tennessee – Home to 11 Rhodes Scholars.’ Ole Miss has 25 Rhodes Scholars. Tennessee has 39,000 students; we have 14,000.”

– Mississippi’s public colleges and universities: “I am not going to suggest we start closing universities or community colleges, but I think we need to get the 23 together and devise a really good plan that’s mission-specific by discipline. I’m encouraged for the potential for Ole Miss and Mississippi State to work together.”

– Making friends for Ole Miss: “We try to bring nationally prominent people to Ole Miss. When they leave, they’re ambassadors for what we’re doing here.”

Errol Castens/Daily Journal